Anyone that has ready book Grit for Writers knows that I share my personal story of grit and the challenges that mental health means for a creative endeavour. Talking to a few fellow writers this week, I was struck that living, and writing, with depression is a challenge many writers face. After having a challenging week myself, I wanted to share some knowledge I’ve gained as both a writer with a diagnosis of depression, but also as a psychologist that helps others live—and succeed—with depression.
Know your depression
How depression manifests itself as diverse as those that live with it, and knowing what your particular ‘flavour’ looks like gives you knowledge. And yes, knowledge means power. Having an understanding of which negative thoughts your mind will turn to, what areas of your life are particularly vulnerable, and what this will mean for your behaviour is all valuable information. If you’re anything like me, your inner critic will turn on your creative endeavours first. Creative endeavours are highly susceptible to criticism because what is considered ‘good writing’ is highly subjective. The more fragile the foundations for a belief, the more easily it is undermined.
Although I don’t know exactly what your mind is telling you—that’s a product of your biology, psychology and history—my prediction is it’s some variant of ‘I’m not good enough.’ What I’m also going to predict is that it undermines, if not totally stops, your writing mojo. From personal experience, and from hearing countless clients relay their struggle to engage in the activities they love, I know that depression kills motivation (in fact, loss of motivation is a diagnostic criterion for Major Depressive Disorder). Once you have the ability to recognise the messages depression likes to throw at you (incessantly), then I recommend considering the next point.
Don’t believe everything your mind tells you
I believe in this statement so strongly, and it’s been such a key message in my ability to live productively with a chronic mental illness, that I had it tattooed onto my body!
Because a depressed mind is so convinced it knows the truth, it’s very clever at finding the evidence to back up its beliefs (that time you didn’t place in the competition? Obviously proof you’re a crap writer. Oh, and that one star review/the fifteen rejections from publishers/the fact that you have NO idea what happens next in your current manuscript? The conclusion is obvious…watching Netflix is a better use of your time). And it will focus on nothing but those thoughts, and take the subsequent black emotions that swallow you as proof that it’s right.
But we forget that our minds can be biased, narrow sighted, and often downright lie. In fact, our mind takes one perspective of the plethora of options it could choose from and amplifies it. I like to imagine a multistorey building looking down on a scene (in this case, your writing). Each floor has rows of windows, each one providing its own sliver of view. No one window sees it all. No particular window has the full picture of what’s going on down there. Depression takes one perspective (usually the most negative) and makes it the only perspective, and it believes it’s always been like that, and will always be like that.
Consider how you can hold that one window a little more lightly, a little more flexibly. Find ways to remind yourself that there’s other angles to look at any situation, and then ask yourself whether those perspectives may be useful in maintaining your writing routine.
Look after yourself
Feeling depressed is hard. The lack of energy, the loss of motivation, the feelings of hopelessness, guilt and infinite sadness are all overwhelming. You need to treat a depressive episode like any other physical illness. If you were down with the flu, you’d recognise that you can’t do it all; that you may need a little help to get the kids to school, do the shopping, earn and income, clean the house, cook dinner, feed the dogs, write a block-buster…
There’s all the practical things that will look after your physical state; make sure you’re eating well, get enough sleep, keep up the fluids. Sometimes we may need someone to help us do that, which we explore in the point below. But above all, practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time as you would with a friend. Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself (as a depressed brain tends to do), self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings. Ask yourself, as you would a close and beloved friend, how can I comfort and care for myself when I feel like this?
Don’t do it alone
When we’re feeling low, we tend to isolate ourselves, to both protect ourselves from the risk of negativity, but also to protect others from our negative mind state. The problem is, when we’re alone, there’s less chance to discover and entertain those alternative perspectives we’ve just explored (it’s not uncommon for them to come from someone else) or to tap into the protective factors social interactions can have. Engaging with the right people opens up the opportunity to experience empathy, understanding, and maybe a little laughter.
The pivotal words here are the ‘right people.’ If the people in your social network are in a negative headspace (for some people this is a chronic state) then they don’t have the capacity to provide the support you need. But those that can build you up? They’re the ones you want to connect with. You’ll find those people in your family or your friends, online thousands of kilometres away, or in counsellors and psychologists. Find them and reach out to them.
Don’t stop writing
All the strategies I’ve provided so far are challenging. If they were easy, depression wouldn’t affect one in seven people; we’d all implement all those self-help books out there and get on with our lives. But I’m betting this one, the ability to write even though depression has established itself deep in your synapses, is the hardest.
The desire to curl up into yourself and withdraw is strong. It’s a self-protective strategy considering you’re already experiencing a great deal of emotional distress. You’re usually tired because you’ve been sleeping too much or too little, you’re drowning in a sea of sadness, and you’re hating on yourself for being so lazy and incompetent. I say this because I’ve been there.
But continuing to write is the key to living, and most importantly succeeding, with major depressive disorder. I don’t care if it’s 50 or 100 words. You don’t even have to fire up your computer—you can sit down with a pen and paper and jot some notes of the scene that isn’t actually happening for another hundred pages. Do 30 minutes of plotting or editing or research. Use all the strategies we’ve been discussing and keep writing.
What will happen is you’ll discover something. In fact, you’ll discover several things. You’ll discover that depression isn’t driving your life. That those beliefs and words your brain is throwing at you don’t dictate the choices you make. As your book keeps growing, inch by inch, you’ll find that positive feelings can, in fact, live alongside depression. Pride will sprout, creativity will thrive, and optimism will return.
And once you’re on the other side, you’ll have ammunition. You’ll have evidence that you’re not lazy, or useless, or an amateur. So if/when depression bulldozes you again you won’t believe it so completely, it won’t influence your choices so easily. It will be easier to keep writing and prove that bastard wrong.
I can say with certainty, it’s a cycle that worth repeating.
What do you think? Have you experienced that challenge of writing when feeling down? Do you think these tips could be helpful? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, or Twitter.
Have a wonderful week,